A $5 1981 Subaru GL is our Classic of the Year

Stephen Hodges’ 1981 Subaru GL has been around the block a few times. And the backroads. It isn’t fast, sexy, or pristine. It is, however, Hodges’ favorite. And he’ll never sell it.

Well, not again anyway.

The Subaru, chosen by Hagerty employees as our Classic of the Year, was the first car that Hodges owned and the first car he sold, a move he regretted almost immediately.

“A friend of mine, his parents had this 1981 Subaru [and I was] like, ‘This is the coolest car ever!’” Hodges recalls. “So when I turned 14—I couldn’t even drive the car yet—they were like, ‘We’re getting a new car because we’re tired of putting money into it.’ I gave them a $5 bill, they gave me the car.”

Years later, with college fast approaching, Hodges decided to sell it. From that moment on, he says, “I just wanted it back.”

Fat chance of that, right? As it turns out… The summer before Stephen and his wife, Ashley, got married, Stephen was scrolling through Craigslist when he found an ’81 GL just like his. Actually, it was exactly like his—as in, it was the same car. He and Ashley went to check it out, and Stephen took it for a spin. The owner had put some time and money into it, so the asking price was a little steeper than the $5 Hodges bought it for the first time around.

“I couldn’t afford it,” he says. “I’d just bought a house, and I’d just bought an engagement ring for my wife. And I was a teacher… I wasn’t making a lot of money.”

So he had to let go all over again. Or so he thought.

“My wife was able to… I don’t know where she got the money… but she bought the car for me,” Hodges says. “I think that she dipped into her savings. She bought the car for me. I was like, ‘OK, this is good. I’m glad we’re getting married. I’m really glad we’re getting married.’”

Ashley didn’t purchase the car because she fell in love with it. Hardly. She bought it because she loves Stephen. A lot (obviously). The car? She didn’t “get it” at all.

“At first I thought, ‘OK, this is weird’… I thought the vehicle was kind of old… kind of different. I just went with it,” Ashley says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘OK, cool. This is awesome.’” But she doesn’t deliver the verdict of “awesome” in a completely convincing tone. 

That changed, however. “As we’ve owned it, I have definitely grown to love that car. It’s pretty cool.”

The black-and-white GL is powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that the Hodges admit isn’t remotely powerful.

“Um, this car is slow,” Ashley says. “You can’t really go fast in it.”

Stephen says it sounds fast, however. “I never speed,” he says, though he fails to mention that it is practically impossible to speed in the GL. “It’s one of those cars that you wind through second gear, look down, and [say], ‘Wow, I’m doing 30 [mph].’ I had the exhaust done, and it’s exactly where it needs to be. I’ve always wanted to have that really powerful-sounding car—and this has 70 horsepower or something like that.”

Actually, a quick check of the Subaru spec sheet says it has 72 horsepower, so Hodges is selling it a bit short. The GL also had a cool center-of-the-grille headlight with a flip cover, wears a Japanese license plate, and is decorated with stickers, including a large Oregon Subaru Club across the top of the windshield.

The Hodges, who live in Albany, Oregon, enjoy taking day trips in the Subaru with their dog, Bear. Ashley admits she’s a little leery of longer trips, however. “I wouldn’t want to take it far,” she says, choosing her words carefully.

She says that beyond her husband’s obvious driving enjoyment, the Subaru provides something that his modern car doesn’t: “It’s his ‘let me learn how to do this because this isn’t my daily driver’ car.”

Stephen admits as much. There’s just something about the simple nature of the car, right down to the instrument cluster. “It’s all analog—like you have an oil pressure gauge and an actual voltmeter,” he says. “I love that [the gauges] are orange… [and] they’re really bright.”

Hodges knows his story is unusual, since most people who regret selling a car never see it again. Maybe that’s why he appreciates every opportunity to drive it.

“I love the way that I feel when I’m driving the car,” he says. “It always puts a smile on my face. And that’s the reason why I have it. It doesn’t make any practical sense for me to have this car. But it just makes me happy.

“I will never get rid of it. It’s a really big, important part of me. It’s an important part of my marriage, and I want the car to continue to be a part of our story.”

Here’s to second chances—and thoughtful spouses.